Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Are YOU commanding ME?
To be commanded by anyone feels heavy-handed. It feels contrary to our individualism, which we pride ourselves on as free people. But, commanded we are if we understand the covenantal relationship we enjoy in Judaism. With mitzvot, commandments or good deeds, God makes a “brit,” a covenant with us in every generation. How do we hear God’s command, today? How do we participate in a covenant as individuals and a community? Consider these three answers provided by the late great Rabbi Herman Schaalman, Rabbi David Polish, and Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn.
Rabbi Herman Schaalman (z’l) wrote that the voice of the commanding God can be heard as “the metzaveh (the Commander)” behind each mitzvah. He writes, “It all depends on whether I am ready to live my life in relationship to God, in response to Him (sic), in my acceptance of His being Commander and of me as His covenant partner.” It is as if he, himself, stood at Sinai, and said as the Israelites did, “Naaseh venishma,” We will do and we will hear; commonly translated, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Exodus 24:7). Schaalman emphasized, “The number of mitzvot I thus choose to perform is not nearly as important as is the fullness of my awareness and intention, for it is likely that in time I may hear the authentic ‘voice of God’ in many more mitzvot than at first I could have imagined.”1
Rabbi David Polish (z’l) found meaning in mitzvah through the history and shared experiences of the Jewish people. He explained, “When a Jew performs one of the many life-acts known as mitzvah to remind himself (sic) of one of those moment of encounter, what was only episodic become epochal, and what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life.” For example, in the singular moment of the ritual lighting of the Sabbath candles or participating in the Passover Seder, we’re connected with Jews everywhere in the world, today, and with those who came before us in the past.
Therefore, for Polish, the source of mitzvah flows not only from a single commanding voice, but also from the sheer power and enormity of history, which persists in the ways we continue to do what we do. He concluded, “We are called upon to be in the world. Mitzvot enable us momentarily to transcend the world and, strengthened, to return to it as we must.”2
Finally, Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn (z’l) wrote from a naturalist’s perspective in his commentary on Schaalman and Polish. Gittelsohn doesn’t deny a metzaveh as the source of the mitzvah in historic encounters between the metzaveh and the Jewish people, but Gittelsohn made room for the metzaveh to be a “Spiritual Energy, Essence, Core, or Thrust of the universe; not a discrete Supernatural Being.” He asked, “For the religious naturalist, who is the metzaveh? Answer: reality itself.” For the naturalist, mitzvot represent “the difference between talking or philosophizing about Judaism and living it. They bind him (sic) firmly, visibly, to his people and his tradition. They speak to him imperatively because he is Jewish and wants to remain so.”3
Still others might feel commanded by their personal duty, rather than an Eternal commander (mitzaveh) to demonstrate our people’s legacy of and duty to the cause of freedom. Whatever the source of one’s motivation, it is inextricably bound to a unique moment in our collective narrative. Giving it expression through traditional symbols at Passover, for example, even when it’s woven into a modern context in contemporary Haggadot, enables us to continue seeing ourselves as though we were once “slaves in Egypt,” too; and, that our duty is to bring the power of that redemptive moment into moments in need of redemption, today.
The Book of Leviticus will always challenge us with the meaning of ancient rituals, prescriptions, and remedies. They were an ancient prescription for holiness found in the ways that the community responded to God’s command. That we are commanded, today, is an assumption we’re willing to embrace. What we hear is a matter of autonomy afforded us by Reform Judaism. How we respond to what we hear is also a personal part of being choosing Jews. In addition to the Four Questions at the Seder, which ask and answer how Passover night is different from all other nights, we might also ask how this night is not different from all the generations as we pause in our family’s Seder to ask the familiar questions and to respond.
(adapted from Rabbi David Lyon’s contribution to URJ’s “Ten Minutes of Torah” on Leviticus, Parashat Tzav 2018; https://tinyurl.com/yxsk562k)
1 Schaalman, Rabbi Herman. “The Divine Authority of the Mitzvah.” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Cycle, ed. by Simeon J. Maslin, 100-103. New York: CCAR Press, 1979.
2 Ibid. pp. 104-107
3 Ibid. pp. 108-110
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.